This week we are returning to the Gospel of Mark. It is a very interesting week. This week’s narrative occurs almost exactly mid-way in the gospel. Peter makes his very definitive proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. This is the first time in this gospel that Jesus has been called the Messiah since the very first verse. Until now spirits and people who hinted in this direction where told not to disclose it, the Big Secret. “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God.” (Mark 1:24) Jesus cleanses a leper, but he tells the man not to tell anyone how it happened. (v 44) It goes on and on. After all the secrecy for seven chapters, it is starting to come out into the open. Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, but it soon becomes clear that he didn’t really know what he was claiming about Jesus.
Jesus will continually try to teach Peter and all of the disciples what he really means, but they won’t fully understand until much later. We hear about this same episode in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so it can be very familiar to us. However, I’m going to ask you to pay special attention to the second part of the reading. Today, we will be looking at Mark’s version.
Mark 8:27-38 (NIV)
27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Usually, when I have heard this passage preached, it focused on the interaction between Jesus and Peter. Bold Peter who has the courage to say that he thinks Jesus is the Messiah, and then proud and presumptuous … otherwise called “foot in mouth disease” as he scolds the man he claimed as Messiah for describing his own future not as something wonderful and triumphant but as one that will involve suffering and death. Peter was obviously no longer listening when Jesus said that he would rise on the third day. Either that, or it seemed so fantastic that it would not compute.
Up to this point, Jesus was talking just to his disciples, but after this little interaction with Peter, he calls the whole crowd over. We get to listen in too as part of the ignorant crowd. He explains what it means to be his disciple. You must deny yourself, and take up your cross and follow him. (Mark 8:34)
What does it mean to deny yourself? Over the years, we have come to think of denying ourselves as what might be better described as delayed gratification. I will deny myself this piece of cake, to be healthier, to lose weight, to be a good example to others. I will deny myself access to some of my income to put in a savings account or a retirement account for my future life.
It has also come to mean enduring different levels of suffering on behalf of others. I will deny myself to give to a charity or a good cause. I will deny myself some of my time off to sort donated clothes or distribute food to the needy.
For some it means enduring extreme suffering to demonstrate love of Jesus. This could involve giving up worldly goods and attachments to go and live in the desert alone, becoming a hermit. You could do the same and live with other people by living in a monastery or convent.
All of this means denying something to yourself whether it is pleasurable activity, things in the world we like, money. There are times when we are called to do these things, but this is not what Jesus is talking about here. It is more all-encompassing and basic than that.
When Jesus says that we are to deny ourselves, he is not saying that we are to deny something from ourselves, but to deny who we are, how we think of ourselves or thought of ourselves prior to following Jesus.
Why would Jesus ask us to do this or expect this of us as his followers? He is telling us to recognize who we are absent the saving grace of Jesus, in this “adulterous and sinful generation.” (Mark 8:38) Paul helps us understand when quotes Ecclesiastes 7:20, “There is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.” (Romans 3:10) We don’t like that, or at least most of us don’t. We like to think of ourselves as good. We think that we should get credit for trying even when we miss the target.
Someone shared a great example of one way we sin, how we miss the mark, even when we are trying to be good. Have you ever sinned while you were praying? What would that even look like? It could look like a lot of things. One thing that it is not is sharing your passionate feelings with God, whether they are happy, sad, angry, frustrated or grateful. We learn that in the Psalms. The parts of the Psalms that are little more questionable is when the psalmist asks God to do terrible things to his or her enemies.
However, there is something even more basic than that. This happens to me all the time, and if this doesn’t ever happen to you at least occasionally, you are further on your walk than I am. Have you ever been praying, your full concentration on God, and suddenly a stray thought goes through your mind? You find that you are no longer praying. You are thinking about something totally different, or you find yourself on the phone with someone because you remembered that you had to arrange something. It has nothing to do with what you were praying about. In the midst of everything, you forgot about God and started pursing your own priorities. That is just one way that even when we are trying to be good that our own innate selfishness gets in the way.
Who we are without or absent Jesus is selfish beings that want what we want, and we want it now. Just like Peter scolding Jesus, we think that we know better and rebel against anything that tries to reign us in. This is who we are without Jesus. This is the self that Jesus is telling us we need to deny.
What does it mean to deny ourselves in this way? Something that can help us to understand this denial is looking at the only other place where this particular Greek verb appears in Mark’s gospel. This is Peter’s denial of Jesus on the night of his arrest. Earlier in the evening at the Last Supper, Peter emphatically states that he will not deny Jesus, even if he has to die. (Mark 14:31) Not only does Peter deny his association with Jesus, he does it three times.
Let’s remember where we are in the narrative. Jesus has been arrested, and all of the disciples have fled or otherwise deserted him. The guards have taken Jesus to the house of the high priest where he will be interrogated. Peter follows at a distance, and he goes as far as the courtyard. He is standing by one of the warming fires when one of the servant girls identifies him as someone who was with Jesus.
Peter responds with his first denial, “‘I don’t know or understand what you are talking about,’ and went out into the entryway.” (Mark 14:68) Here Peter isn’t direct. He claims to have no idea about the topic the girl brings up.
It seems that the girl is following him because she is there telling the people around Peter, “‘This fellow is one of them.’ Again he denied it.” (Mark 14:69-70)
The people around Peter have now heard him speak, and they recognize his accent as Galilean. Now, they challenge him. Peter’s response is quick and emphatic as he completely denies Jesus. “I don’t know this man you’re talking about!” (Mark 14:71)
Peter has denied any relationship, responsibility, or obligation to Jesus. He can’t even call him by name. Jesus is now “this man.” Peter has separated himself from Jesus and everything he represents. This is the last we hear from Peter in Mark’s Gospel.
As Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary says, “Peter’s denial of Jesus also expresses itself with a finality that declares Peter’s complete separation from Jesus … [He] moves from discrediting the content of an accusation, to denying his allegiance to a group, to a profession of complete ignorance [I don’t know this man you’re talking about!] that minimizes Jesus’ significance and subtly disparages the value of Jesus’ life and ministry.”
Notice also the public manner of this denial. This is not just an internal severing. Oh, I’m not going to hang out with Jesus anymore. Peter states publicly three times.
So, if all of these things that Peter did illustrate for us a denial of Jesus, they can be a guide for us about what Jesus means by self-denial. First, it means more than self-discipline by resisting our own personal desires. Peter shows us that Jesus is directing us to disown our person. We are no longer living for ourselves. We no longer even recognize our old self. I don’t know or understand what you are talking about! I don’t know this person you are talking about!
This is a change that is so recognizable that people who find some familiarity with the old you might ask you. Aren’t you the person who used to ….. Only you know what you used to do. You will feel such separation from that person that your attitude will be I don’t know this person you are talking about. Not as some kind of boasting or showing off, but as demonstration that you are a new creation in Christ. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation: The old has gone, the new is here!”
The idea of denying self is reinforced with what Jesus says next, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) Taking up your cross has also come to mean many things, but it meant one thing in the Roman world. You had been pronounced a criminal and were going to suffer a very public, painful, and humiliating form of capital punishment. You were not some kind of run of the mill criminal, but a vile criminal. Part of the public humiliation was to carry the cross beam of the cross you would be hanged on through town.
This is not Jesus’ cross you are carrying. It is your very own cross. This is the cross due to the things that you have done. This cross that you carry is an acknowledgement that your life is forfeit. Absent Jesus, this is what you deserve. With Jesus this is what the world may think that you deserve.
Jesus is telling us that to be his disciple, his follower, that we have to acknowledge who we are on our own, give up that identity, acknowledge our guilt, and acknowledge that following Jesus may be so threatening to others that they will want to be rid of us. All of this seems to bring us to the end of us as a person. Why would anyone want to do this? It is one of those ironic table turning scenarios that God presents throughout God’s history with humanity.
Those who want to save their lives, their souls, by not following Jesus … After all this idea of denying self and taking up one’s cross doesn’t seem very appealing … Those who want to save their lives by not following Jesus will lose them in the end. Those who deny themselves, acknowledges who they are on their own and what they deserve and follow Jesus will ultimately saves their lives, their souls.
Why? How will our lives our souls be saved? Through grace. The unmerited gift of salvation, of having that deserved penalty of death being paid by Jesus. Soon we will be singing one of the world’s best known hymns, “Amazing Grace.” Its first verse summarizes this so well.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
You may be familiar with the story of the writer of these words, John Newton. He was a slave ship captain, who after his conversion to Christianity ultimately became a clergyman. Interesting to note that his ordination may have been delayed due to his disreputable practice of socializing with Methodists.
It’s easy to understand why a slave ship captain might think of himself as a wretch. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a wretch as “a base, despicable, or vile person.” It could also be “a miserable person: who is profoundly unhappy or is mean, evil, unprincipled, and experiencing great misfortune.”
A friend of mine has a t-shirt that says, “I am the wretch the song refers to.” What Jesus calls us to understand is that we are all the wretch. However by that understanding we gain access to that amazing grace. Once we have it, our eyes are opened. We were blind, but we never knew it until we could see it through the grace of God.
Jesus gives us a mighty challenge that not everyone will accept. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is not reserved for clergy or those whose vocation is full time ministry. This is the call, the expectation of everyone who follows Jesus. He says give me everything you have and everything you are, and the reward will be greater that you can possibly imagine. Have you accepted the challenge?
Let me pray for you. Lord, you ask so much of us, and it is a difficult decision to deny ourselves. Some of us have decided to do it, but it is a decision that we have to make anew every day. Some of people here have not decided yet. They are not sure that they trust you. They are not sure what denying themselves will mean in their lives. Lord, I ask you through your Holy Spirit to give us courage and strength. Help us to trust you. Help us to know that when we take that leap of faith that you will catch us every time. Not only that, but you will lift us ever higher. Glory to God! Amen!
1. Matthew Skinner, “Denying Self, Bearing a Cross, and Following Jesus: Unpacking the Imperatives of Mark 8:34,” Word & World, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer 2003, p. 327.